Fire’s victims aided by help from others

Students, local agencies – and landlord – helping out

By:Roger Alvarado
   The efforts of a generous landlord, township officials and some civic minded middle school students have helped the families affected by the Jan. 11 fire at the Beekman Garden Apartments move on with life.
   The blaze caused extensive damage to two units at the 16-unit complex and left 16 families temporarily homeless and slightly injured four township police officers and three firefighters who were attempting to rescue a 15-year-old girl screaming from her first-floor apartment window.
   The fire was accidental and originated from an electric stove in one of the units, according to the Somerset County prosecutor’s office arson squad.
   In the immediate aftermath of the fire residents were temporarily relocated to the Municipal Complex for the night by the Hillsborough Department of Social Services and the American Red Cross.
   Since the night of the fire, the complex’s owner, Julius Sommer, has seen to it that the 16 families affected by the tragedy have a place to stay while the necessary repairs to the apartments are made.
   "He had them in the Days Inn since the day of the fire," said Amy Bisgeier, a secretary speaking on behalf of Mr. Sommer. "He has gone out of his way to have them relocated and has taken care of them. Mr. Sommer housed and made donations to the Red Cross and police department and fire safety on top of everything else he did.
   "He’s a very unique individual, just a wonderful man whose got a very good heart and is very caring for people," she added.
   According to Ms. Bisgeier all the families affected by the fire with the exception of one unit of four badly damaged were moved back in last Friday.
   "Thanks to Hillsborough township officials things have moved much faster," she said. "Ron Estepp (the township construction official) worked hard to get us the permits that we need issued. He and his entire staff have been wonderful."
   "The families have their heat, power, water and gas all restored," Mr. Estepp said. "They had an architect there today (Tuesday) to look at the damage in the units."
   At this point three of the four families located in the unit most affected by the fire have been relocated to other apartments within the complex, Ms. Bisgeier said.
   Hillsborough’s Director of Social Service Mary Ellen Stahley says she has tried to do what she can to help those families most affected by the fire.
   "Four families were severely impacted and lost the most," she said. "We’ve tried to follow up with them and make sure they are put in contact with groups and people that can help them get what they need. We have a food pantry here that they certainly have had access to."
   Ms. Stahley says that both Karen Sowden and Chip Famularo of the township’s health department helped her set up a shelter overnight to temporarily house the residents before Mr. Sommer put them up at the Days Inn.
   The Red Cross was also instrumental in seeing to it that families had whatever they needed and provided counseling if needed, Ms. Stahley said.
   Several students in David Pincus’ eighth grade class have spent the last week doing all they can to help out fellow middle school student Priscilla Ledezma whose family lost their apartment and everything in it to the fire.
   After discussing Priscilla’s situation with the class Mr. Pincus says the students made the decision to do what they could.
   "They said ‘we’ll bring in money,"’ he said. "We got everything set up and collected last Wednesday, couldn’t do anything Thursday because of the snow day, but resumed the drive on Friday."
   By the end of the week the class had raised $700, Mr. Pincus said. "We were all amazed," he said.
   One student in particular was particularly touched by Priscilla’s family plight and dug deep into his pockets.
   "Andrew Duff had been saving $118 to buy himself an iPod," Mr. Pincus said. "But he said it was more important for her family to have the money because they lost their house and clothing."
   Mr. Pincus says he went out of his way to laud the youngster for his efforts.
   "One of our teachers was concerned about him giving so much money and she spoke to the mother who was content with his decision and I spoke to the father this weekend and they both said he does things like this," Mr. Pincus said.
   Mr. Pincus says he used the money to buy the family a gift certificate for Kohl’s.
   "The manager there said that when they go in they should let them know they’re the ones using it and he’ll give them a discount," Mr. Pincus said. "That will really make the money go farther."
   According to Mr. Pincus, the money has kept coming this week.
   "We actually have another $110 more," which he says will be given to the family in cash in addition to the gift certificate to Kohl’s.
   He is proud that his students took it upon themselves to help a family in need.
   "We’re very happy we have such caring outgoing group of kids," Mr. Pincus said. "This was unbelievable."